Dress to impress, have a joke up your sleeve and flout rule number one – NEVER mention her age! – at your peril... More’s Louise Gannon recalls her SEVEN bruising bouts with pop’s punchiest star
Adecade ago I sat in a suite in the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills awaiting an audience with Madonna. It was a matter of weeks ahead of her 50th birthday and the beginning of her eighth concert tour (Sweet & Sticky) to promote her 11th studio album, Hard Candy. Eight writers from around the world had been hand-selected. There was tension in the room – there always is with Madonna – because there was one rule she was insisting every journalist follow: UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES CAN YOU ASK HER ABOUT TURNING 50.
I was the last person to speak to her that day. The journalist before me, a nervous Italian, was led out of her interview room after less than 15 minutes and looking close to tears. He had not asked the forbidden question; he’d done something far worse. He had bored her with tedious queries and then sat in terrified silence, flipping through his notebook as she demanded: ‘Ask me something interesting.’ He was struck dumb so she waved her hand for him to be removed.
She was wearing a black leather jacket, black trousers and a scowl when I walked in. On a previous occasion she had told me she enjoys being in ‘bitch mode’. I was prepared. She complimented me on my outfit (I was wearing gold sandals from her 2007 H&M collection because I’d interviewed her six times before and know she takes in every tiny detail) and I grinned. ‘We’ve been told not to ask you about turning 50,’ I said. ‘But you’re a feminist, you’re a trailblazer and women want to know how you are going to handle 50.’
‘You’ve broken the rule,’ she said firmly. ‘Yes,’ I answered, making sure I gave direct eye contact. ‘Because that’s what you’ve taught women to do. I’m only following your lead.’ She burst out laughing. I had a longer audience than anyone else that day, and when I left she recommended a Vietnamese massage centre on Sunset to deal with jet lag. I tried her recommendation – it was pure torture. I wondered whether it was a joke on me or a lesson in what it takes to be Madonna: take everything to the extreme. Ten years ago, she gave me her manifesto for ageing: ‘I’m not going to be defined by my age. Why should any woman? I’m not going to slow down, get off this ride, stay home and get fat. No way... I will certainly never get fat. I don’t ever want to stop learning, living, loving – I want more, more, more.’
The first time I met her was in 1989 (the year she divorced first husband Sean Penn), when she had just had a $5m contract with Pepsi revoked after the Vatican condemned her for the Like A Prayer video, which featured burning crosses, stigmata and her making love to a saint in a dream sequence.
She was (slightly) less intimidating then, with cropped, curly peroxide hair and dressed like an off-duty dancer in black sweats. But Madonna doesn’t necessarily give interviews – she gives tests. She said I had to tell her a joke. ‘What’s the difference between a rock star and a dictator?’ She shook her head. ‘You can negotiate with a dictator.’ She laughed. How did she feel being banned by the Pope and losing $5m? ‘I got to No.1 all over the world, didn’t I?’ she said. ‘And I’m not here just to entertain people. I’m here to make them think. I want to push boundaries. Or else, what’s the point? I’m not afraid to be the sort of artist who makes you
question everything – people can hate me or love me, but as long as I make them think, that’s all I care about.’
When she first exploded on the scene in 1980, a raw, pretty dancer on New York’s arty club scene, whose boyfriends included graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, she just seemed – as she once told me – like another ‘piece of ass to be exploited for a fast buck’.
‘Being underestimated is a very powerful position to be in,’ she said. ‘No one expected a woman to make a deal, break a deal and make demands. People call you a bitch and a ball-breaker. No one calls a powerful man that. No one asks can he cook and look after his children. F*** that. If it takes being a bitch, I’ll be a bitch.’
When you’re in a room with her, she is in control. She likes to be seated already, and there is usually a large book in front of her containing her schedule for the day, which must be adhered to. And she has always relished her man-eater image. ‘I’m not ashamed of my sexuality – what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,’ she said in 1996. Meanwhile, she also told me the reason she fell for Guy Ritchie was ‘because he said “No” to me, and that is something I couldn’t resist’.
She can be surprisingly funny – she can even laugh at herself. Ritchie used to mock her outrageous outfits. ‘Sometimes, I’ve come down the stairs all dressed up. He gives me a look and says: “Who are you going as tonight, then?” Isn’t that a great put-down?’ And she took great pleasure in her daughter’s embarrassment of being taken to school by her. ‘“You’re not wearing that, are you?” is what she says to me pretty much each time.’
I’ve asked Madonna many times what it is that drives her. ‘I am entirely a product of my childhood – I have dealt with a lot of my demons, but the biggest one is still to do with my mother dying when I was young.
‘As I child I had no control. I felt the world around me was chaotic and I needed to have some control, which would enable me to pull myself up by my bootstraps. That’s when the self-discipline started. It was my way of survival. I started off wanting to be a nun like the ones at my school because they lived this incredible ordered life and they moved around in this graceful way. Then I realised I loved boys, so that was out. Then I found dance, and it was this world where you had to achieve results – no tricks, no shortcuts. It’s how I’ve lived my life forever. When I hung out in clubs in New York and experimented with drugs I hated being out of control. I’d drink water to get them out of my system.
‘In life I have to be engaged, to be learning, doing, living. I’ve never wanted to be disengaged or to miss a moment.’
I’m glad not to have missed a moment in her company because women like Madonna are rare. You cannot predict how she is going to react to any question or what words are going to come out of her mouth. There is no such thing as complacency in her world – even at 60.
Madonna, we salute you.
POST PUNK: Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
ABOVE: Madonna prepares for a grilling. Left: posing for Rebel Heart, 2015